Indiana student press freedom bill runs out of time

A Hail Mary attempt to pass legislation guaranteeing constitutional protections for student journalists fell short in Indiana.

House Bill 1130, introduced Jan. 3 by state Rep. Ed Clere, R-New Albany, showed strong grassroots support from students and educators, who took time before the start of the session to bring all the stakeholders together.

Last week, despite support from senators on both sides of the aisle, the state Senate declined to allow discussion on the final attempt to pass a New Voices bill in the Hoosier State.

“We had a lot of momentum in the Senate and tremendous support and it simply wasn’t allowed to receive a vote or apparently even be discussed,” Clere said, noting that 12 senators – nearly a quarter of the state’s 50-member Senate – had sponsored or co-sponsored the bill.

“There was no floor debate, there was no public process.”

Earlier in the session, the bill cleared the House Education Committee unanimously after the addition of language restricting “gratuitously profane” content in K-12 publications. That success was ushered along by extensive testimony from the Hoosier State Press Association, Indiana high school and college press associations, and student editors and faculty advisers.

A few days later, the legislation passed the full House 88-4.

In the state Senate Education Committee, an amendment to the bill made several changes, including protecting students in grade 9 and higher instead of grade 5, excluding advertisements from the list of content under student control, and stipulating that students appeal to the state Board of Education in the event of a disagreement with an administrator.

Throughout the process, the bill garnered consistent opposition from the state principals’, superintendents’ and school boards’ associations.

“They’ve been steadfast in their opposition,” Clere said. “They have opposed it from the beginning and they’ve been completely unwilling to consider any language that would result in a meaningful bill.”

Despite friction from the three associations, the bill reached the Senate floor, but last-minute opposition from the state Department of Education prompted sponsors to withdraw the bill – hoping to preserve the language to be added to another bill.

Clere found that bill.

The trick was, the New Voices language could only be added to a related bill – an education bill. House Bill 1043 was an appropriations bill that included education funding, and it was one Rep. Clere had already been working on with Rep. Jeff Thompson.

“Unfortunately we had some bad timing on new opposition from the Department of Education emerge,” said Steve Key, the executive director for the Hoosier State Press Association. “Which bollocksed us up in the Senate and forced us into the situation where we were trying to get another vehicle through a conference committee.”

When contacted, the state DOE press secretary, Adam Baker, said in a statement, “While we don’t have concerns about the newly added language about an advisor, the DOE is not advocating for the passage of this bill. We have shared suggestions for changes to the bill with legislators, which are not currently reflected in this bill. The final decision rests with them.”

A conference committee held a hearing on the proposed amendment, with testimony from students, teachers, professionals, and representatives of the principals’ and school boards’ associations. They didn’t take any immediate action on the proposal.

Ultimately, as the session wound down to a close, the Senate leadership didn’t allow the student journalism amendment to be voted on, or even discussed. HB 1043, the appropriations bill, continued on to the Senate and passed both houses on the final day of voting.

Both Clere and the HSPA prepared to take up the fight, again next year.

“I don’t see any reason why the Hoosier State Press Association would not continue to support an idea that helps train maybe some future Pulitzer Prize winners,” Key said. “And just your average reporters who are out there making a difference in the communities that they report.”

The SPLC reached out to the principals’ and school boards’ associations. As of press time, only the principals’ association replied. Associate Executive Director Tim McRoberts declined an interview on behalf of himself and Executive Director Todd Bess, offering the following statement:

“Moving forward, The Indiana Association of School Principals is committed to working with our Student Journalists, sponsors and administrators to provide a rich journalism experience for our students in Indiana.”

During the conference committee testimony, McRoberts had shared his experience as a high school principal of 11 years, saying he never once censored a story brought to his attention. He said he felt there was no widespread problem in Indiana necessitating legislation.

Clere, to the contrary, said the wealth of student testimony has only strengthened his resolve to see the bill through.

“A lot of these administrators say, ‘Oh, there’s no problem.’” Clere said. “Well, I guess from their perspective there’s not problem because the students and their advisers are self-censoring – they know that many topics are simply off-limits and there’s no reason to pursue them.”

Key, himself a former high school journalist who went on to a 13-year career in journalism before earning his law degree and joining the press association, said legal protections are vital for a free press in Indiana.

“It’s hard to quantify the negative impacts of Hazelwood, because you have students at the high school level who are basically not learning what journalism is,” Key said. “They’re learning how to be quiet, how to get along with administration and not make waves.”

“That’s kind of contrary to the whole concept of having a robust freedom of speech and freedom of press so people can challenge authority and hold government representatives accountable.”

Clere said as they regroup, he’d like to reach out to more students, administrators, and legislators to take the bill through another battle.

“I plan to keep working on it indefinitely.”

SPLC Publications Fellow Roxann Elliott can be reached by email or (202) 833-4614.

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